by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Now a growing body of research is showing that exercise acts directly through an astonishing number of bodily mechanisms to reduce cancer risk, activate the immune system to fight cancers as they develop, and help the body survive cancer treatment.
Best of all, it takes only gentle exercise to start seeing benefits.
Adrenaline boosts immune system to fight tumors
In a recent study conducted by researchers from Copenhagen University Hospital, and published in the journal Cell Metabolism, the hormone adrenaline was found to play a key role in the link between exercise and cancer protection.
The researchers injected two groups of mice with cancer cells. The first group were kept in their cages round the clock, forcing them to be mostly sedentary. The second group had free access to activity wheels, allowing them to run as much as they wanted. The mice were then exposed to chemicals known to trigger liver cancer.
While three-quarters of the mice in the sedentary group developed cancer, only a third of the mice in the active group did so. Tumors were also 60 percent smaller in the exercise group. In addition, the tumors in the active mice contained higher levels of natural killer cells than the tumors in the sedentary mice. This indicates that the natural killer cells (a type of immune cell) were actively fighting the cancers in the more active mice, likely contributing to those tumors’ smaller size.
Prior research has shown that exercise boosts levels of both adrenaline and interleukin-6. Adrenaline is known to increase activity of natural killer cells, while interleukin-6 helps them target cancer cells.
To test whether adrenaline and interleukin-6 were responsible for the benefits seen in the exercising mice, the researchers injected the cancerous, sedentary mice with the two chemicals. The immune systems and tumors of the mice responded in the same way as seen in the exercising mice.
According to lead researcher Pernille Hojman, this therapy might be promising for people who are physically unable to exercise, but could never replace exercise in the able-bodied, she said, because adrenaline and interleukin-6 are not the only mechanisms by which exercise helps the body fight cancer and maintain health.
Don’t overdo it
Exercise also decreases levels of chronic inflammation in the body, thereby removing one of the major risk factors for cancer, heart disease and many other chronic conditions. Exercise may also help regulate cell replication. And when paired with a healthy diet, it also contributes to weight loss, which can also reduce cancer risk.
Another recent study, published in the journal Oncogene, found that exercise boosted mice’s levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and led to tumor shrinking. When the action of dopamine was blocked, the tumors stopped shrinking.
Notably, this benefit was seen only in mice engaging in moderate exercise. Mice engaged in excessive exercise became fatigued, and their bodies’ defenses weakened. The benefits of exercise and dopamine vanished.
According to Liam Bourke of Sheffield Hallam University, who is leading a new study into whether exercise can delay cancer growth in humans, the evidence so far supports gentle rather than vigorous exercise.
“You don’t have to be an athlete to get the benefits,” Bourke said.
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